As we respond to disasters, let’s get our facts straight


Myths and facts about highway and transportation funding and taxation

Severe weekend flooding in southeastern Minnesota that destroyed lives, homes, roads and bridges should add momentum to State Capitol discussions of a possible special legislative session spurred by the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Opinion: As we respond to disasters, let’s get our facts straight

This new disaster highlights the fragility of vital infrastructure statewide. It should remind all Minnesotans that we are one state — not just urban, suburban and rural regions competing for scarce resources.

The devastation many miles downstream from where the freeway fell into the Mississippi River may actually provide a greater rationale for the governor to call legislators into session this autumn. Swiftly enacted federal legislation will pay the entire estimated cost of replacing the I-35W span – no state or local matching funds required, except for transit-ready enhancements.

But the folks in the state’s southeast corner probably can’t expect that level of largesse from Washington. This is where the state must step in, as it has in the past for flood-ravaged Browns Valley and tornado-wracked St. Peter, to name two recent examples.

And heavy flood damage to roads and bridges in the southeast ups the ante of long-term needs that should be met with a comprehensive state transportation funding package of the kind the governor and legislators are already negotiating. It’s certainly high time; nearly 20 years have passed since Minnesota’s last serious infusion of new revenue into roads, bridges and transit. Now the state’s funding shortfall for transportation is approaching $2 billion a year.

So, as the debate continues, it’s also time to clear up some misconceptions – call them myths – about transportation funding in Minnesota.

Myth No. 1: Gasoline taxes pay for transit … or welfare … or whatever.

Fact: Minnesota gas taxes are fully dedicated by the state Constitution to “highway purposes.” The same goes for vehicle registration fees. No transit or anything else gets a dime. How widely this is misunderstood is shown in public opinion polls on raising the gas tax. When respondents are reminded that the money goes only to motorways, support increases about 20 percentage points.

Myth No. 2: The state formula for funding roads and bridges unfairly shortchanges the congested Twin Cities area.

Fact: Less than half of state gas taxes are collected in the seven-county metro area, whose residents pay the lowest amount per capita in the state. Meanwhile, more than half of the state trunk highway fund is spent in the Twin Cities area. The metro also gets more than two-thirds of municipal road and bridge state aid, which is reserved for cities of 5,000 or more residents.

Outstate gets the bulk of county and township state aid, based on a vast majority of road miles (and highway fatalities) outside the metro. But the overall funding split for roads and bridges is nearly identical to the split in gas tax collections: 47 percent metro, 53 percent outstate.

Myth No. 3: Drivers pay their own way to get around, while transit is heavily subsidized.

Fact: Local property taxes contribute more to roads and bridges in Minnesota – an estimated $1.6 billion in 2006 — than the “user fees” of state gas and registration taxes. Drivers also avoid paying for economic “externalities” such as the costs of pollution and military efforts to secure foreign petroleum supplies. Metro Transit riders, meanwhile, pay one-third of operating costs, among the highest rates of fare box recovery in the United States.

If legislators are going into a special session, let’s make sure they, and all Minnesotans, are armed with the facts.